Discovering Porto and the Douro

After Dave’s final exams ended last week, he had a couple days off, which was given to the class in case any of them wanted to attend the London Wine Fair. Since it was an optional (read: the school doesn’t pay) trip, we opted for a trip to Porto and the Douro Valley (wine region) instead. It was a bonus that the prices in Portugal are about half of what they are in France—unlike London, which is about twice as expensive.

We took RyanAir for the first time, flying out of Carcassonne, which was like a poor knockoff of the airport in the show Wings. We were just about the only people there under the age of 65 and not wearing a turquoise kerchief around our neck (apparently that was the identifying mark that particular tour group decided to use). Flying RyanAir probably deserves its own blog post but the highlights include the sensation that you’re riding on a flying billboard, with ads encasing the overhead bins, advertisements over the PA systems every 20 minutes (smokeless cigarettes, anyone?) and then, after landing, “Call to Post” was played, making me feel like I was starting a mad horse race.

Because that is exactly what you want to hear when you’re groggy, waking up from the nap you took to avoid being bombarded by ads.

Anyway, we got in Sunday night, which was not only a Sunday, meaning much of the town was closed, but it was also a religious holiday. We found a place for dinner near our hotel, which was Italian food with a Portuguese twist. Dave had a whole octopus tentacle for dinner…and it wasn’t half bad! I had steak with a gorgonzola fondue sauce that was delicious.

During dinner, we discovered that Porto’s soccer team had just won their 3rd straight championship and as the night wore on, more and more cars came through, honking and cheering. I’ve never seen so many unbuckled children hanging out of car windows, waving blue and white flags in my life. It was quite the sight, I’ll say that. We walked around a bit after dinner, to the Dom Luis Bridge that straddles the Douro River, connecting Porto to Gaia, the side where the port wine houses are.

Monday morning we were ready to go early, finding a place for coffee, or in our case “Galão” which is coffee with milk. Coffees there, for both of us, were €1.50. I say this because in France, the same drink for both of us would run us €5. The prices were crazy.

We spent the day cruising around Porto, trying to see some of the things we’d read about: the Mercado do Bolhão (a market, which unfortunately wasn’t as lively since it was Monday), Livraria Lello & Irmão (the cool bookstore, which I didn’t think was all that exciting, but everyone raved about it online), the Ribeira District on the water (which we loved and went back to hang out/have drinks, despite the awful saxophone player who was so into his tunes that it made it more funny than anything) and the older city buildings that made Trip Advistor’s “Must See” lists. After my disastrous lunch, we crossed the river and headed into Gaia, where we walked around the river front where all the tasting rooms and restaurants are. We decided to do a tour and tasting at Sandeman, as we’d heard it was worth the experience. It was a weird experience being on the other side of a tour! The tour included a sit down tasting of two port wines, which was nice.

It was late afternoon by this time, so we headed back to Porto and napped before dinner (port wines and their 20% alcohol don’t mess around).

For dinner, we headed to another place I’d read about via some blog and again, my food was somewhat of a letdown. It had potential. Dave loved his dinner of cod fish with scrambled eggs and potatoes (bacalhau, in Portuguese), but I had chicken with cheese with “today’s rice” and sadly, the chicken was overcooked/dry, and the cheese was quite plastic in nature. The rice was really tasty and I got my own little crock pot of it, and the broth of the rice helped with the dry chicken but I didn’t leave raving about it, like Dave did with his dish. Dessert helped and the chocolate cake was served with a homemade(-tasting) lemon sorbet, which was delightful. The restaurant had one server as far as we could tell, and though she was very pregnant, she was working her tail off. We felt for her when the large group that was clearly expected earlier finally showed up, kicking off the chaos that would be her evening, beginning with specialty menu changes.

The group was French and their leader looked to be demanding sternly requesting certain things and this poor waitress just smiled and nodded, trying to appease him. One of the interesting things we noticed about Porto is that most of the Portuguese people in service industries speak about a million languages. This waitress seemed to understand French (because her group sure as hell wasn’t attempting Portuguese) and even our front desk person at the hotel spoke in Spanish to the people checking in ahead of us, English for us (after our poor attempt at Portuguese), then answered a question in Italian, and checked in a French group after us. Impressive. And I’m jealous.

Future children, sorry for you if you don’t like it, but you’re going to take a language class as long as I can force you. You’ll thank me later.

Luckily for us, we were wrapping up by the time this group got situated so we escaped the madness, but not before I attempted to wish this poor girl good luck, which fortunately isn’t unlike ‘good luck’ in Spanish, so she caught my drift and gave me a tired smile and said ‘obrigado‘ (thank you).

(click photo for slideshow)

On Tuesday, we knew we wanted to go to the Douro Valley. This is where all the port vineyards are…they harvest the grapes and get them to barrel, then (in the old days) send the barrels down the river by boat to age at the facility in Gaia (hence the tasting rooms there).

We’d kicked around the idea of renting a car to get to the Douro, which is about 60 miles from Porto, but instead opted for a train ride, which was a cool way to see the valley. The track (note the singularity there) runs alongside the river so the view is incredible. It was about a two-hour ride and the first hour didn’t offer much in the way of a view of the river, so I slept…because you know how I mentioned they have ONE track? Well, that means the train times are few and far between so to catch the proper train, we had to leave our hotel at 6:30am. Thus, a nap was in order. And, I’ve discovered that I’ve become an incredible transportation sleeper. Two minutes of moving and I’m out. (Sidebar: this is also how I realized that I’m old. When I was younger, I couldn’t sleep when traveling for fear I’d miss something. Now I’m like, ‘I value sleep. Wake me when we get there.’)

Anyway, we arrived in a little town on the river, Pinhão and when I say little town, I’m not kidding. This was by far the most authentic experience we had on the trip. There wasn’t much around, except mechanic shops and a few tourist-y spots to buy port wine and waters. Everything else along the main drag was either closed or shuttered. It was around 10:30 by the time we arrived, so we tried to find a place for coffee and a pastry and only one little place was open. This was quite the experience. We entered and it was almost like a cafeteria-style place. Along one side was a counter stocked with food and drink items you’d find in a convenience store. Further down the counter was more of a bar, with wines and various types of booze displayed on the wall. The woman behind the counter happily greeted us and prepared our coffees. We watched, as a handful of locals trickled in and out, picking up food and clearly catching up on the latest gossip, which was apparent even in another language. It was like a morning meeting place where everyone knew everyone else and they probably all had “usual” orders.

We finished our coffees, feeling like we’d just really had an authentic experience, then wandered back towards the train station, where we took a tour and did a tasting for Quinta do Nova, which purchased the houses next to the train station and converted them to a museum. The tour was basic, mostly giving us information about port-making that we already knew but we got to taste table and port wines after, which made it worth it.

Following our tasting, we wandered down, closer to the waterfront, and found a place to have lunch. Dave again had fish. This time, a whole fish, head and all, was delivered to him on plate. By the time he was finished, it looked like one of those drawings you see in a comic strip, where all that’s left is the head and a perfect fish skeleton! My tuna salad was delicious, although the scoops of carrot shavings on either side made my plate look a bit like a clown’s colorful wig.

It was about 5pm by the time we got back to Porto. We wandered down to the Ribeira again, had drinks and waited for the dinner hour to start. One of the things that I still haven’t quite gotten used to is the late dinner hour in Europe. Usually, we eat around 7:30, which is just on the cusp of dinner service beginning. But at that hour in Porto, we seemed to even beat the early-bird special diners. We wandered up to a couple of restaurants we’d read about and scoped out their menus. None of them seemed terribly appetizing, so we ended up at O Mercado, a place located in the old marketplace that has since been converted to a more modern commercial space. It was average, and we both ended up with pizzas, but since it was our last night in town, we headed to the Majestic Cafe for post-dinner beverages. The Majestic is an old-timey time restaurant where a guy in a suit opens the door for you and all the servers are in crisp white shirts and black ties that reminded me of Galatoire’s in New Orleans. It was one of those places where everyone says you go for the experience, not necessarily the food. It was clearly a tourist trap, as that was probably our most expensive restaurant during the trip, and we didn’t even eat! (Not really, but close!)

Truly, the Majestic Cafe was somewhat symbolic of the city itself: I’m glad I went and I enjoyed myself, but now that I’ve seen it, I can cross it off my list. I didn’t leave with the same invigorated feeling like I did with Barcelona, where I can’t wait to return. Porto was a neat old port city that was worth discovering, but I feel like even in our short time there, we did it justice in exploring. We’d still like to visit Lisbon and see what that’s all about, but for now, Portugal has been checked off the list!

(click photo for slideshow)